The distinct sound of a bouncing ball resounds inside the gym. The rubber contracts and expands as it impacts the floor. Basketball chatter. Sneakers squeak. Quick breaths. The coach shouts instructions to his team. The players, engaged in the game, hardly hear him. The coach keeps shouting anyway.
The possession of the ball changes: attempting to sneak a pass into the paint, one of the players hits the back of an opponent. A one-man fast break begins. The player dribbles the ball, clumsily trying to keep up. The ball is pushed a little too far forward and is cut off from the invisible string that connects the player to the ball. Momentum is carrying the ball out of bounds; the player can only give a slight boost to his sprint. He focuses everything on retrieving the ball. Because of this, he doesn't notice that he's stepping on his own shoelace. He trips and falls to the floor. The ball bounces outside the boundary.
The player gets up, with a smile spread across his face that reveals two missing teeth.
This is a youth basketball game.
* * *
In the heat of an NBA game, it can be easy to forget this sentiment: the players on the floor are regular people. They, like the rest of us, have hopes and dreams, fears and concerns, goals and aspirations. They all begin the journey to this league in the same way. It all starts with a love for the game.
This love can be lost in the pursuit of winning and losing. But today, as I watched my little brother play his first basketball game, I saw the joy on his face. Whether he knew what was going on or not, his exuberance was clear. The beautiful game is fun.
But Isaiah Austin, a player whose endeavors began in the same way as my brother's, was on his way to a successful NBA career. Yet his time on the court has ended.
He was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a disorder I hadn't heard about since my 9th Grade Medical Terminology class. To me, the athletes that I see step on the court seem invincible. Sure, an injury could occur, but I had never imagined that NBA players, blessed with their prime genetics, could come down with such an illness, could have their dreams disappear in the blink of an eye.
Austin's situation showed me a reality that sports don't usually reveal. Sports are the ultimate medium for a self-fulfillment fantasy. Sure, you can get lost in a book or movie, connect deeply with a piece of music, or find meaning in a piece of art, but they have a different effect than what sports give. In following a team, you see development, you watch a group of people overcoming struggles, you witness their joy in accomplishing a goal. While books or movies may have the same effect, sport unfolds in real-time, and there is no predetermined ending. That's why fans stubbornly follow their teams, why the storm that the players sail through each season is so fulfilling. There is always next year.
In sports, no dream is abruptly taken away. Hope is continually preserved. There's a seemingly endless supply of second chances.
Isaiah Austin had his chance taken away by a disease. With this, I crashed face-first with my naivete; I had never seen a dream taken away so mercilessly.
So on Thursday, before the Chicago Bulls selected their draft pick, I was elated when a certain series of events occurred before my eyes. Another reality was shown to me by the NBA.
His name is called, and the crowd gives an ovation. He receives an NBA hat and kisses his mother on the cheek. Adam Silver's in the background, a tenor drone explaining his situation. A smile creeps onto my face as this man gets recognized. The cheers continue, and among the words of sincerity, words that I'm sure Isaiah Austin will never forget graces the room.
"With the next pick of the NBA Draft, the NBA selects Isaiah Austin, from Baylor University."
The act was purely symbolic and no one knows that better than Austin. He will only experience the pomp of the moment that would have signaled the start of his dream without ever being able to pursue it. But sometimes even manufactured moments can change a person's outlook. For Austin, this was likely the step he needed before moving on. And it was made possible by a league not often associated with compassion.
The NBA, for all charity work that it does, for all the dreams that it helps realize, is first and foremost, a business. And business is often harsh: profits are placed ahead of people, deadlines are pushed without regard to hardship.
But on this night, a corporation made compassion its business. Redemption was placed above profit and success.
Each step Austin took onto the stage was an expression of gratitude. The NBA didn't have to do anything for the young man. But they offered him a job once he finishes his college degree. On a night dedicated to the future of the NBA, the NBA saw to the future of a player who'd lost the ability to play.